How social media platforms could flatten the curve of dangerous misinformation.

Faecesbook A simple article on a simple idea, which is to introduce brakes and/or circuit breakers to popular social media platforms in order to slow down viral posts to a speed that sysadmins can handle. Such posts can have deadly consequences and are often far from innocently made. The article mentions cases such as the Plandemic video (a fabric of lies and misinformation intended to discourage mask use and distancing) that received 8 million views in a week before being removed by all major social platforms, or a video funded by ‘dark’ money called America’s Frontline Doctors pushing hyroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment hitting 20 million views on Facebook in just 12 hours, through targeted manipulation of algorithms and deliberate promotion by influential accounts. It would take a large army of human police to identify and contain every instance of that kind of malevolent post before it hit exponential growth, so some kind of automated brake is needed.

Brakes (negative feedback loops and delays) are a good idea. They are a fundamental feature of complex adaptive systems, and of cybernetic systems in general. You have really a lot of them in your own body, they exist from the level of ecosystems down to cellular organelles, and from human organizations to cities to whole cultures they serve the critical function of maintaining metastability. If everything happened at once, there’s a fair chance that nothing would happen at all. But it has to be the right amount of delay. Too little and the system flies off into chaos, never reaching even an approximately stable state. Too much and it either oscillates unstably between extremes or, if taken too far, destroys/stops the system altogether. Positive feedback loops must be balanced by negative feedback loops, and vice versa. Any boundaried entity in a stable complex adaptive system has evolved (or, in human systems, may have been been designed) to have the right amount of delay in the context of the rest of the system. It has to be that way or the system would not persist: when delays change, so do systems. This inherent fragility is what the bad actors are exploiting: they have found a way to bypass the usual delays that keep societies stable. But what is ‘right’ in the context of viral posts, that are part of a much large ecosystem that contains within it bad actors hidden among legitimate agents? Clearly it has to respond at least nearly as fast as the positive feedback loop itself is growing, or it will be too late, which seems to imply mechanization must be involved. The algorithm, such as the one described in the article, might not need to be too complex. Some kinds of growth can be stunted through tools like downvotes, reports of abuse, and the like, and most social technologies have at least a bit of negative feedback built in. However, it is seldom in the provider’s interest to make that as powerful as the positive feedback for all sorts of reasons, many quite legitimate – we don’t have a thumbsdown option on the Landing, for instance, because we want to accentuate the positive to help foster a caring community, and down-voting motives are not always clear or pure.

However, a simple rule-driven system alone would probably be a bad idea. There are times when rapid, exponential, positive feedback loops should be allowed to spread in order to keep the system intact: in real disasters, for example, where time and reach is of the essence in spreading a warning, or in outpourings of support for victims of such disasters. There are also perfectly innocuous viral posts – indeed, they are likely the majority. At least, therefore, humans should be involved in putting their feet on the brakes because such things are beyond the ken of machines and will likely remain so. Machines cannot yet (and probably never will) know what it means to live as a human being in a human society – they simply don’t have a stake in the game – and even the best of AIs are really bad at dealing with novel situations, matters of compassion, or outliers because they don’t have (and cannot have) enough experience of the right kind, or the imagination to see things differently, especially when people are deliberately trying to fool them. On the other hand, humans have biases which, as often as not, are part of the problem we are trying to solve, and can themselves be influenced in many ways. This seems to me to be a perfect application for crowd wisdom. If automated alerts – partly machine-determined, partly crowd-driven – are sent to many truly randomly selected people from a broad sample (something like Mechanical Turk, but less directed), and those people have no way of knowing what the others are deciding, and if each casts a vote whether to trigger the brakes, it might give us the best of both worlds. This kind of thing spreads through networks of people so it is appropriate that it can be destroyed by sets of people.

Originally posted at:

Facebook is a 'parallel universe' of lies and minisformation crafted to deliver the election to Trump

Faecesbook This is a commentary by Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing on a New York Times article describing how the far-right is exploiting Facebook with ruthless efficiency. At least, that’s one way to look at it. Another, as Beschizza notes, is:

“…that Facebook’s cultivation of these audiences is intentional, simply because a Democratic congress and president would present a more potent threat to Facebook than Trump and his cronified GOP ever will. It’s no secret that Zuckerberg is more concerned with conservative critics than progressive ones, a concern often cast as fear but could just as well be because that’s who he and his team wants to please. The right will carp but it knows it rules Facebook from the inside out. Only the left talks seriously about breaking it up.”

That’s an interesting take on things. It would not surprise me if it is true but, if this is what it is doing, it is most likely through deliberate failure to dampen virality rather than more obvious algorithm tuning. It would not be a moral compass that holds it in check – it has no moral compass – but plausible deniability. 

I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: DO NOT USE FACEBOOK. Stop it. Really. If you must use it, use it in a special isolated tab in Firefox (you can get the plugin here), or use different browser solely for that purpose. Then get out of it as soon as you can. As for Whatsapp, Instagram, or any other tool, device, or app that Facebook owns, just say no (or, if you must use them, NEVER use Facebook itself). It bugs the hell out of me that my avoidance of Facebook means I am unable to see a lot of useful things people have witlessly shared on this closed and malicious platform, and I am so sad that the formerly great Whatsapp and Instagram apps, despite the contracts under which they were sold that were meant to stop exactly such abuse, are now just slimy Facebook tentacles. However, I refuse to willingly feed my identity to the Devil that has tried (with too much success) to destroy the Web, and that feeds – and feeds on – the darkness in people’s souls for its own profit. Full disclaimer: I do have an account, as well as Instagram and Whatsapp account, but they are for research purposes. Sometimes you have to take risks in order to learn.

The original article notes some caveats, including that the massive disparity between far-right posts and those of the rest of the world has only been demonstrated in public posts, and that it might include a fair number of legitimate hate-shares. The latter can be significant: I am not sure whether I am typical, but I certainly share at least as many articles of which I disapprove as those that I like. Whether this is a good thing or not is very much up for debate (e.g. see here, here, here, and here).

Originally posted at:

Evaluating assessment

Exam A group of us at AU have begun discussions about how we might transform our assessment practices, in the light of the far-reaching AU Imagine plan and principles. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to bring about radical and positive change in how learning happens at the institution. Hard technologies influence soft more than vice versa, and assessments (particularly when tied to credentials) tend to be among the hardest of all technologies in any pedagogical intervention. They are therefore a powerful lever for change. Equally, and for the same reasons, they are too often the large, slow, structural elements that infest systems to stunt progress and innovation.

Almost all learning must involve assessment, whether it be of one’s own learning, or provided by other people or machines. Even babies constantly assess their own learning. Reflection is assessment. It is completely natural and it only gets weird when we treat it as a summative judgment, especially when we add grades or credentials to the process, thus normally changing the purpose of learning from achieving competence to achieving a reward. At best it distorts learning, making it seem like a chore rather than a delight, at worst it destroys it, even (and perhaps especially) when learners successfully comply with the demands of assessors and get a good grade. Unfortunately, that’s how most educational systems are structured, so the big challenge to all teachers must be to eliminate or at least to massively reduce this deeply pernicious effect. A large number of the pedagogies that we most value are designed to solve problems that are directly caused by credentials. These pedagogies include assessment practices themselves.

With that in mind, before the group’s first meeting I compiled a list of some of the main principles that I adhere to when designing assessments, most of which are designed to reduce or eliminate the structural failings of educational systems. The meeting caused me to reflect a bit more. This is the result:

Principles applying to all assessments

  • The primary purpose of assessment is to help the learner to improve their learning. All assessment should be formative.
  • Assessment without feedback (teacher, peer, machine, self) is judgement, not assessment, pointless.
  • Ideally, feedback should be direct and immediate or, at least, as prompt as possible.
  • Feedback should only ever relate to what has been done, never the doer.
  • No criticism should ever be made without also at least outlining steps that might be taken to improve on it.
  • Grades (with some very rare minor exceptions where the grade is intrinsic to the activity, such as some gaming scenarios or, arguably, objective single-answer quizzes with T/F answers) are not feedback.
  • Assessment should never ever be used to reward or punish particular prior learning behaviours (e.g. use of exams to encourage revision, grades as goals, marks for participation, etc) .
  • Students should be able to choose how, when and on what they are assessed.
  • Where possible, students should participate in the assessment of themselves and others.
  • Assessment should help the teacher to understand the needs, interests, skills, and gaps in knowledge of their students, and should be used to help to improve teaching.
  • Assessment is a way to show learners that we care about their learning.

Specific principles for summative assessments

A secondary (and always secondary) purpose of assessment is to provide evidence for credentials. This is normally described as summative assessment, implying that it assesses a state of accomplishment when learning has ended. That is a completely ridiculous idea. Learning doesn’t end. Human learning is not in any meaningful way like programming a computer or storing stuff in a database. Knowledge and skills are active, ever-transforming, forever actively renewed, reframed, modified, and extended. They are things we do, not things we have.

With that in mind, here are my principles for assessment for credentials (none of which supersede or override any of the above core principles for assessment, which always apply):

  • There should be no assessment task that is not in itself a positive learning activity. Anything else is at best inefficient, at worst punitive/extrinsically rewarding.
  • Assessment for credentials must be fairly applied to all students.
  • Credentials should never be based on comparisons between students (norm-referenced assessment is always, unequivocally, and unredeemably wrong).
  • The criteria for achieving a credential should be clear to the learner and other interested parties (such as employers or other institutions), ideally before it happens, though this should not forestall the achievement and consideration of other valuable outcomes.
  • There is no such thing as failure, only unfinished learning. Credentials should only celebrate success, not punish current inability to succeed.
  • Students should be able to choose when they are ready to be assessed, and should be able to keep trying until they succeed.
  • Credentials should be based on evidence of competence and nothing else.
  • It should be impossible to compromise an assessment by revealing either the assessment or solutions to it.
  • There should be at least two ways to demonstrate competence, ideally more. Students should only have to prove it once (though may do so in many ways and many times, if they wish).
  • More than one person should be involved in judging competence (at least as an option, and/or on a regularly taken sample).
  • Students should have at least some say in how, when, and where they are assessed.
  • Where possible (accepting potential issues with professional accreditation, credit transfer, etc) they should have some say over the competencies that are assessed, in weighting and/or outcome.
  • Grades and marks should be avoided except where mandated elsewhere. Even then, all passes should be treated as an ‘A’ because students should be able to keep trying until they excel.
  • Great success may sometimes be worthy of an award – e.g. a distinction – but such an award should never be treated as a reward.
  • Assessment for credentials should demonstrate the ability to apply learning in an authentic context. There may be many such contexts.
  • Ideally, assessment for credentials should be decoupled from the main teaching process, because of risks of bias, the potential issues of teaching to the test (regardless of individual needs, interests and capabilities) and the dangers to motivation of the assessment crowding out the learning. However, these risks are much lower if all the above principles are taken on board.

I have most likely missed a few important issues, and there is a bit of redundancy in all this, but this is a work in progress. I think it covers the main points.

Further random reflections

There are some overriding principles and implied specifics in all of this. For instance, respect for diversity, accessibility, respect for individuals, and recognition of student control all fall out of or underpin these principles. It implies that we should recognize success, even when it is not the success we expected, so outcome harvesting makes far more sense than measurement of planned outcomes. It implies that failure should only ever be seen as unfinished learning, not as a summative judgment of terminal competence, so appreciative inquiry is far better than negative critique. It implies flexibility in all aspects of the activity. It implies, above and beyond any other purpose, that the focus should always be on learning. If assessment for credentials adversely affects learning then it should be changed at once.

In terms of implementation, while objective quizzes and their cousins can play a useful formative role in helping students to self-assess and to build confidence, machines (whether implemented by computers or rule-following humans) should normally be kept out of credentialling. There’s a place for AI but only when it augments and informs human intelligence, never when it behaves autonomously. Written exams and their ilk should be avoided, unless they conform to or do not conflict with all the above principles: I have found very few examples like this in the real world, though some practical demonstrations of competence in an authentic setting (e.g. lab work and reporting) and some reflective exercises on prior work can be effective.

A portfolio of evidence, including a reflective commentary, is usually going to be the backbone of any fair, humane, effective assessment: something that lets students highlight successes (whether planned or not), that helps them to consolidate what they have learned, and that is flexible enough to demonstrate competence shown in any number of ways. Outputs or observations of authentic activities are going to be important contributors to that. My personal preference in summative assessments is to only use the intended (including student-generated) and/or harvested outcomes for judging success, not for mandated assignments. This gives flexibility, it works for every subject, and it provides unquivocal and precise evidence of success. It’s also often good to talk with students, perhaps formally (e.g. a presentation or oral exam), in order to tease out what they really know and to give instant feedback. It is worth noting that, unlike written exams and their ilk, such methods are actually fun for all concerned, albeit that the pleasure comes from solving problems and overcoming challenges, so it is seldom easy.

Interestingly, there are occasions in traditional academia where these principles are, for the most part, already widely applied. A typical doctoral thesis/dissertation, for example, is often quite close to it (especially in more modern professional forms that put more emphasis on recording the process), as are some student projects. We know that such things are a really good idea, and lead to far richer, more persistent, more fulfilling learning for everyone. We do not do them ubiquitously for reasons of cost and time. It does take a long time to assess something like this well, and it can take more time during the rest of the teaching process thanks to the personalization (real personalization, not the teacher-imposed form popularized by learning analytics aficionados) and extra care that it implies. It is an efficient use of our time, though, because of its active contribution to learning, unlike a great many traditional assessment methods like teacher-set assignments (minimal contribution) and exams (negative contribution).  A lot of the reason for our reticence, though, is the typical university’s schedule and class timetabling, which makes everything pile on at once in an intolerable avalanche of submissions. If we really take autonomy and flexibility on board, it doesn’t have to be that way. If students submit work when it is ready to be submitted, if they are not all working in lock-step, and if it is a work of love rather than compliance, then assessment is often a positively pleasurable task and is naturally staggered. Yes, it probably costs a bit more time in the end (though there are plenty of ways to mitigate that, from peer groups to pedagogical design) but every part of it is dedicated to learning, and the results are much better for everyone.

Some useful further reading

This is a fairly random selection of sources that relate to the principles above in one way or another. I have definitely missed a lot. Sorry for any missing URLs or paywalled articles: you may be able to find downloadable online versions somewhere.

Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2006). Aligning assessment with long-term learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(4), 399-413. Retrieved from

Boud, D. (2007). Reframing assessment as if learning were important. Retrieved from

Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in organizational change and development, 1, 129-169.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 325-346.

Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220-233.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle ed.). Mariner Books. (this one is worth forking out money for).

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Kohn, A. (2015). Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”. Retrieved from (check out Alfie Kohn’s whole site for plentiful other papers and articles – consistently excellent).

Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination research (pp. 183-203). Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications. (may be worth paying for if such things interest you).

Wilson-Grau, R., & Britt, H. (2012). Outcome harvesting. Cairo: Ford Foundation.

The perfect Ploughman’s Lunch

ploughman's lunch with bread, sausage, stilton, salad, pickled onion, etc, served with a pint of bitter on a white place
A very acceptable ploughman’s lunch,
served in the ancient town of Lewes.

Life in Canada is, generally speaking, wonderful when compared with life in the UK but, as well as the loved ones I miss, there are a few everyday things that I yearn for from the old country, most often connected with food or drink. I am reminded on this sunny day in late August of the meal that I miss most: the Ploughman’s Lunch. I almost wrote ‘the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch’ but Ploughman’s Lunches are not really traditional, though they are loosely based on what rural workers ate and drank for centuries. The term and the dish were invented by a cheese marketing board in the late 1950s, and enthusiastically promoted for sale in pubs – usually with a glass of ale or cider – as a more substantial and satisfying alternative to traditional pies and sandwiches, but just as easy for inexpert pub staff with no proper kitchen to prepare. They have been almost ubiquitous in English pubs for my entire life. I know of a handful of pubs in Greater Metro Vancouver that purport to serve them but, without exception, even when they do other British dishes like bangers and mash, toad in the hole, Shepherd’s Pie, and so on well, they are not even close to the real thing and are almost guaranteed to disappoint. A couple of ‘British’ pubs in Victoria get pretty close, with something you might find in a mediocre chain pub in the UK, but none do it right.

So here, in case any pub owners in Vancouver or the surrounding area ever get to read it, is how you do it right…

Two or three really thickly cut slices or wedges of crusty bread (but not the sort of crust that will break your teeth). Not toast (though very light toasting may be OK if the bread is not completely fresh), not thin-sliced bread, no fancy flavours or additions, definitely not wraps or flatbreads. The perfect bread is an English cottage loaf or similar, wholemeal or otherwise. Sourdough is acceptable, a baguette works if it is really fresh, or a country loaf inspired by French, Italian, or similar traditions can substitute well. A nice roll – ciabatta or similar – may do at a pinch (that is what is in the image above, and it was quite pleasant). Not optional.

A small tub of soft (but not too soft) cultured butter (never margarine, never uncultured butter – almost all butter served in the UK is cultured, but it is not the default here in Canada). A handful of foil packets of Anchor butter or similar are acceptable and commonplace (see image above). Not optional.

A substantial wedge of sharp, well-aged Cheddar or similar hard cheese. Shouldn’t be the shrink-wrapped supermarket variety unless you cannot find anything better. Stilton is a good alternative/addition (as in the image above). Not optional.

A wedge or two of Melton Mowbray pork pie (the best) or other meat product such as the sausage in the image above. Optional.

A generous, thick-cut slice or two of slightly chewy baked ham. Never, ever, ever, substitute the pasty gelatinous mechanically recovered slices that come in plastic boxes at your local supermarket, or turkey slices (though a good chunk of smoked turkey from a delicatessen works well), or thin-sliced charcuterie meats, pastrami, salami, etc. Optional.

A dob of intensely hot Coleman’s English mustard or similar. Only needed (in tiny quantities) if you are having the ham, pork pie, sausage, etc. Don’t substitute Dijon, German, grainy, or other mild, vinegary alternatives unless you really can’t stand the intensity of proper English mustard.

A pickled onion or two. Not optional. I prefer strong pickled onions but medium strength will do. Do not substitute cocktail onions, or mild pickled onions, and especially do not even consider substituting dill pickles or gherkins. How could you even think of such a thing? I’m looking at you, Vancouver pubs.

Plenty of proper, dark brown, crunchy, chunky, richly flavoured Branston pickle (not the weird light-brown goop that tends to be sold in many Canadian stores – many supermarkets now stock the real thing, made by Crosse & Blackwell, usually in the British part of the ‘ethnic food’ section). Heinz, Waitrose, or Marks & Spencer Ploughman’s pickle will do at a pinch. Not optional. Do not substitute chutney or other sweet goo, especially if flavoured with cinnamon or other strong, fragrant spices. A really good, sharp, crunchy mango chutney, though, with a not-too-sweet sauce might be OK if you really hate Branston.

Some good, sharp, bright, chunky, crunchy piccalilli. Optional (good if you are having the ham or pork pie).

A fairly plain, leafy salad with lettuce, tomatoes, some red or other mild onion, maybe some cucumber, perhaps a sprig or two of parsley as a garnish. Go light on the dressing, if you use any at all. Mayonnaise may be provided on the side. Not optional. Do not substitute coleslaw, exotic leaves, potato salad, caesar salad, etc. Keep it simple, keep the ingredients distinct.

A few other ingredients may be added or, sometimes, substituted to taste, such as a Scotch egg, a gherkin or two, perhaps some coleslaw, maybe a British banger or similar sausage, maybe a boiled or pickled egg, possibly some black pudding or liver sausage/pate, perhaps a bit of game pie instead of pork pie; certainly an alternative or additional hard or semi-hard cheese or two (Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Gloucester, etc); perhaps a slice or two of thickly cut cold roast beef (horseradish optional, otherwise mustard) or cold roast lamb (with mustard or mint sauce), or maybe a chicken or turkey drumstick (lovely with Branston) instead of ham; perhaps a chutney (as well as, not instead of, Branston), maybe some pickled beetroot, perhaps some watercress, radish, cress, celery, etc in the salad.

Never serve any ingredients hot, though the bread can benefit from being a little warm.

Don’t overdo it. The best Ploughmans tend to keep things fairly simple, with two or three main proteins, in chunks or wedges or thick slices, good bread, a simple salad, pickled onion, and Branston or Ploughman’s Pickle, with only a smattering of signature embellishments to complement the main centrepieces.

Absolutely essential, and not optional, it must be paired with the right drink…

The perfect accompaniment is real English bitter, pulled from a barrel (cask), never from a keg, bottle, or can, served at cellar temperature (not warm, not room temperature, certainly not cold, just a little cool), with the lightest ring of froth, not completely flat but with no visible bubbles (the texture of velvet), and no more than 4% alcohol. A mild or IPA will do just as well, though remember that, in England, a really strong IPA is around 4.5%. You could substitute Guinness or similar stout if you wish. If that’s not possible, a cask-style nitro can (Kilkenny is the most common brand sold here) is better than nothing, though not ideal. Avoid anything with bubbles. If you don’t like beer, scrumpy (the real stuff, never fizzy, always cloudy, always dry), or a proper French cider or similar will do. Beware the alcohol content of real scrumpy, if you can find it here: you can drink it as easily as orange juice, and it hardly tastes alcoholic at all, but it will flatten you faster than hard liquor. Red wine is acceptable. If you don’t want alcohol, a glass of real lemonade is not a bad substitute, or perhaps a jug of water with a slice of cucumber or mint, or maybe a lime juice cordial or lemon barley water. Avoid anything sweet or fizzy or very strongly flavoured, unless you are sure the flavour will complement the dish (red wine is normally good because it cuts through the fatty, protein rich ingredients, much like the pickle components of the meal).

Serve it on a large, plain, white china plate, with a knife, fork, and cloth napkin. Use a wooden platter if you must, but only if you are a stockbroker, social media influencer or advertising executive. Do not use slate, stone, or fancy porcelain.

Assemble and eat the ingredients in any order or combination you like. Experiment with different combinations. Use your fingers for most of it (including pickled onions, chunks of cheese, pie, meat, sausage, etc as well as the bread). Expect things to get messy. You’ll probably need that cloth napkin.

Eat it in a leafy grassy pub garden on a lazy sunny, but not too hot, day, if possible surrounded by trees, hedges, or a crumbling brick wall. A babbling brook helps. If possible, sit at an untreated wooden bench. Beware of sparrows. In times of covid, eating inside is inadvisable anyway but, if you must, find a sheltered nook.

Do not, under any circumstances, add TV screens, piped music, or music to dance to. A little live light jazz, folk, or classical music is acceptable if you can still hear the bees buzzing in the garden. If you can add the very lightest hint of cigarette and/or cigar smoke in the air, that’s a plus.

Do not expect to tip your server, do not expect your server to ask if you are still working on it, do not expect your server to clear away your plate while you are still chewing. In fact, do not necessarily expect a server at all: you might have to order and pick it up from the bar, along with your beer. This is fine.

Add perfect company, relax, and enjoy. If you finish it before you’ve had time to order a second pint then you are eating too fast, drinking too slow, or there’s something wrong with the portion size. Take your time. This is a meal to be savoured, not devoured.

Kafkaesque and Orwellian technology design

Death certificate of undead RomanianI am much indebted to the Romanian legal system for the examples it repeatedly provides of hard (rigid, inflexible, invariant) technologies enacted by human beings without the inconvenience, lack of accountability, or cost of actual machinery. I have previously used examples from two cases in which Romanian mayoral candidates were elected to office despite being dead (here, and – though the link seems dead and unarchived so I cannot confirm it – here). This, though, is the best example yet. Despite the moderately compelling evidence he provided to the court that he is alive (he appeared in person to make his case) the court decided that Constantin Reliu, 63, is in fact, still dead, upholding its earlier decision on the subject. This Kafkaesque decision has had some quite unpleasant consequences for Reliu, who cannot get official documents, access to benefits, and so on as a result. Romania is, of course, home to Transylvania and legends of the undead. Reliu is maybe more unalive than undead, though I guess you could look at it either way.

The misapplication of hard technology

The mechanical application of rules, laws, and regulations is rarely a great idea. One advantage of human-enacted hard technologies over those that are black-boxed inside machines, though, is that, on the whole and notwithstanding the Romanian legal system, the workings of the machine are scrutable and can more easily be adapted. Even when deliberations occur (intentionally or not) in camera, the mechanism is clear to participants, albeit that it is rare for all participants to be equally adept in implementing it.

Things are far worse when such decisions are embedded in machines, as a great many A-level students in the UK are discovering at the moment. Though the results are appalling and painful in every sense – the algorithm explicitly reinforces existing inequalities and prejudices, notably disadvantaging racial minorities and poorer students – it is hard not to be at least a little amused by, say, the fact that an 18-year-old winner of the Orwell Prize for her dystopian story about the use of algorithms to sort students according to socio-economic class had her own A-level mark (in English) reduced by exactly such an algorithm for exactly such a reason. Mostly, though, such things are simply appalling and painful, with little redeeming irony apart from the occasional ‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face‘ moment. Facebook, to pick an easy target, has been unusually single-minded in its devotion to algorithms that divide, misinform, demean, and hurt, since its very beginnings. The latest – misinforming readers about Covid-19 – has had direct deadly consequences though, arguably, its role in electing the antichrist to the US presidency was way more harmful.

The ease with which algorithms can and, often, must be embedded in code is deeply beguiling. I know because I used to make extensive use of them myself, with the deliberate intent of affecting the behaviour of people who used my software. My intentions were pure: I wanted to help people to learn, and had no further hidden agendas. And I was aware of at least some of the dangers. As much as possible, I tried to move the processing from the machine to the minds of those using it and, where I could not do that, I tried to make the operation of my software as visible, scrutable, and customizable as possible (why do we so often use the word ‘transparent’ when we mean something is visible, by the way?). This also made them far more difficult to use – softness in technologies always demands more active thought and hard work in users. None-the-less, my apps were made to affect people because – well – why else would there be any point in doing it?

Finding the right balance

The Landing (my most recent major software project) is, on the face of it, a bit of an exception. It is arguably fortunate that some of my early plans for it, involving algorithmic methods like collaborative filtering and social navigation, failed to come to fruition, especially as one of the main design principles on which the Landing was based was to make the site as neutral and malleable as possible. It was supposed to be by and for its users, not for any other purpose or person, not even (like an LMS) to embed the power structures of the university (though these can emerge through path dependencies in groups). However, it is impossible to avoid this kind of shaping altogether. The Landing has quite a few structural elements that are determined by algorithms – tag clouds, recommended content, social network mining for ‘following’ recommendations, etc – but it also embodies values in its very design. Its menu system, for instance, is based on work Terry Anderson and I did that split the social world into networks, groups, and sets, and is meant to affect how people engage. It has a whole bunch of defaults, from default permissions to default notification settings, that are consciously intended to shape behaviour. When it does not do that kind of shaping, though, things can be much worse. The highly tool-centric and content-neutral design that puts the onus on the individual person to make sense of it is one of the reasons it is a chaotic jumble that is difficult to use, for instance

We need some hardness in our technologies – constraint is vital to creation, and many things are better done by machines – but each individual’s needs for technology hardening are different from those of pretty much every other. Hardness in machines lets us do things that are otherwise impossible, makes many things easier, quicker, more reliable, and more consistent. This can be a very good thing but it is just as easy – and almost inevitable – to harden some things that would be better done by people, or that actively cause harm, or that should be adapted to individual needs. We are all different, one size does not fit all.

Openness and control

It seems to me that a fundamental starting point for dealing with the wrong kind of hardness is knowing what and how things are being hardened, and to be capable of softening them if necessary. This implies that:

  • openness is essential: we must be able to see what these things are doing;
  • the ability to make changes is essential: we must be able to override or modify what they do.

Actually messing with algorithms is complex, and it’s usually complicated, which is an unholy mix. It can also be dangerous, at best breaking the machine and at worst making it more harmful than ever. The fact that we can scrutinize and make changes to our tools does not mean that we should, not that we are actually able to exert any meaningful amount of control, unless we have the skills, time, energy, and mandate to do so. Moreover, there are often reasons we should not do so: for instance, a lot of crowd-based systems would not work at all if individual users could adjust how they work, modified software can be used to cause deliberate harm, and so on. It seems to me, though, that having such issues is far preferable to not knowing how we are affected, and not being able to fix it. Our technologies must be open, and they must be controllable, if we are not to be lost in the mire of counter-technologies, Monkeys’ Paws, and malicious machines that increasingly define our lives today.

Originally posted at:

I am disgusted, outraged, furious, sickened, and irritated by this perverse research (actually, no I am not at all)

I am disgusted, outraged, furious, sickened, and irritated by this perverse research (actually, no I am not at all)

   Image of disgust  I am really not at all offended in any way by this well-conducted, clearly reported, very interesting research into what the authors describe as ‘moral contagion’. The actual article title is ‘Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks‘, by Brady et al, from 2017. If the research is valid (it seems solid), I should probably get quite a few more retweets of this bookmark than usual when it gets posted to Twitter. The findings are fascinating, and help to partly explain the success of awful, awful, awful people and their ideas in social media such as Twitter, Faecesbook, and the like.


Political debate concerning moralized issues is increasingly common in online social networks. However, moral psychology has yet to incorporate the study of social networks to investigate processes by which some moral ideas spread more rapidly or broadly than others. Here, we show that the expression of moral emotion is key for the spread of moral and political ideas in online social networks, a process we call “moral contagion.” Using a large sample of social media communications about three polarizing moral/political issues (n = 563,312), we observed that the presence of moral-emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word. Furthermore, we found that moral contagion was bounded by group membership; moral-emotional language increased diffusion more strongly within liberal and conservative networks, and less between them. Our results highlight the importance of emotion in the social transmission of moral ideas and also demonstrate the utility of social network methods for studying morality. These findings offer insights into how people are exposed to moral and political ideas through social networks, thus expanding models of social influence and group polarization as people become increasingly immersed in social media networks.

Originally posted at:

I am a dunce

Cat wearing dunce cap

A couple of nights ago I was trying to set up a new WordPress site for a family member and failing miserably. After a while I figured that I had a problem with a rather subtle kind of database corruption, caused by me taking a few shortcuts when transferring some databases from an old server to this one without updating the tables to match the slightly newer version database engine on the new system (my first mistake of many). No problem, I thought: this is not my first database rodeo. Being the cautious kind, despite having two quite independent backup systems seemingly running, I used rsync to make a copy of all the (at this point working) databases before proceeding. You can never be too careful.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan.

While trying to repair it, I managed to destroy almost every database on the system, including the all-important MySQL database itself. Turns out MySQL’ s repair tools are a bit vicious and/or I don’t know enough about how to use them. Anyway, no problem, I could just restore my fresh backup and try again.


In fact, MySQL itself would not even start. I can only guess that tables that are in current use are skipped by rsync, because a few were OK but most were missing. This is something I need to investigate further because it has worked for me before: maybe I missed a flag or something.

No problem. I had two alternative restore options. I’m a belt, braces, and elasticated waist kind of a guy.

My first-line backup turned out never to have been saved all the database tables, though it had saved some of them, and almost everything else. That took a while to figure out. I guess the reason might be similar to the issue with rsync but it is another thing I need to investigate.

No worries, I had my second line backup ready, created by a smart WordPress plug-in that exports everything on a nightly basis in friendly zipped up SQL format to a totally different server.

At least, it did do that until late 2018.

And it didn’t include the MySQL system tables.

Not wanting to lose well over a year and a half’s worth of changes, I went through an increasingly desperate range of potential fixes, using the in-built tools, playing with removal of various system tables (some of which can be recreated when needed, some not, as it turns out), updating MySQL, and culminating in reinitializing the MySQL database itself. That got the database management system up and running again so I set about recreating the users and permissions – luckily not a huge issue as I had sensibly recorded the relevant info in a separate file. I then tried many ways to combine the backups I had to fix the errant databases, but all failed.

But at least I had my 2018 backup. So I restored that to the site – which worked fine, and I even remembered to allow for database version changes – and then resyndicated the last 20 months or so of posts from the Landing, which is normally where I post things first.


I am sorry, Twitter followers, for the dozens of notifications you then received in the middle of the night (did I mention that it was considerably after midnight by this time?) because I had forgotten to switch off the WordPress tool that automatically tweets new posts. I don’t know whether it helped that I then deleted all of those tweets from my Twitter account. Probably not too much: the notifications had already been sent.

I eventually found a previously forgotten proper SQL backup I’d made back in January this year, as a precaution some weeks before moving the sites to their new home. I was then able to resyndicate at least most of my posts that had originated on the Landing since then, remembering to switch off the automated tweeting tool this time.

I have lost a fair number of tweaks and pages that I had created or modified on the site itself over the past few months, and I expect I’ll be finding quite a few of these over the next little while, but they are mostly not too troublesome to recreate. I’m going to need to work out how to deal with media files (that were unaffected but that have become divorced from WordPress) but I think that shouldn’t be too painful. A few comments from visitors have been permanently lost, but otherwise all seems (touch wood) to be more or less OK now. Fortunately, the owners of the other sites I host on my server haven’t been using them much since January, so (though a few comments may have been lost), they are not too cross.

Have I learned anything useful from this?

Probably not. Not enough, anyway, and likely not persistently. Technical skills are very transient and fade fast when you don’t use them. I had to look up many things that used to be second nature to me this time round. Even if I had remembered well, the technologies I was using had evolved. When you develop the skills to be part of a machine they are of limited use when the machine itself changes. This, as it happens, had a lot to do with the problem I was trying to fix in the first place. As in all things technological, including all things educational, the tools matter far less than the assembly and orchestration of them.

I have managed database management systems for approaching 30 years. In fact, if you count DBaseII/III/IV systems on personal computers, it’s closer to 35 years. I have suffered as a result of carelessness, stupidity, bugs, malice, bad software companies and natural decay enough times to know that you should regularly restore your backups and go through the rest of your recovery procedures on a regular basis, and certainly after every significant change (a version upgrade, for instance). In fact, I teach database management at graduate level and I enthusiastically correct students who forget it. But managing actual databases is very much an occasional hobby for me now, and I don’t have the time, money, or patience to do what I know should be done. A full restore is a big job that carries its own risks, so I try to avoid it, and take risks rather than lose a good night or two of work.

I’m contemplating containerization so that I only have to deal with big self-contained chunks though (with my current setup and limited experience of containers) that is a daunting option. I’ve considered paying someone else but, as a lot of the reason for doing this is not just the ability to control my own systems but to learn how to do so (I hate teaching things when my own skills are rusty) that’s a bit of a cop-out. I am vaguely wondering about setting up a cluster, though that’s a great deal more effort and only protects against a limited, if important, range of problems (it would have helped here, because I would have switched off mirroring before doing this, and could have reversed it when things went wrong). I welcome any thoughts anyone might have on the subject! Any rock solid (Linux) backup tools that are more straightforward than Bacula? Any smart strategies for keeping systems safe without major effort or skill needed?

Letting go and staying close: presentation to GMR Institute of Technology, India, August 2020

Letting go and staying close

Here are my slides from a presentation I gave to GMR Institute of Technology, Rajam of Srikakulum District, Andhra Pradesh State, India, last week. I gave the presentation from a car, parked in a camp site in the midst of British Columbia, surrounded by mountains and lakes and forest, taking advantage of a surprisingly decent 4G connection via an iPad. It was sadly not interactive, but I hope that those present learned something useful (even if, as my presentation emphasized, they did not learn what I intended to teach).

The general gist of it is that, when teaching online, we need to let go because the in-person power we have in a classroom simply isn’t there. There are other consequences – the need to build community, to demonstrate caring, to accept and value the context of the learner, to accept and value the very many teachers that they will encounter apart from us.

Standard Ebooks: Free and liberated ebooks, carefully produced for the true book lover.

This is a great site. It doesn’t have anything like the number of books to be found on sites like Project Gutenberg or, but each one has been lovingly edited and restored to how it should be, and made available in most popular e-book formats. This is a wonderful service and, at a stroke, removes many of the barriers to reading classic (and some not-so-classic) public domain works. It’s all managed through Github. I feel that I should help with this worthy project though I’m not sure I have the time or patience. I’m very grateful to those that do, though.

Originally posted at:

This New ‘Ion Drive’ Airplane Flew Straight out of Science Fiction

ion powered planeWell, this is cool and, indeed, right out of the pages of science fiction. It uses an array of highly charged electrodes on the wings, positively and negatively charged. The first in line ionizes nitrogen, which is therefore attracted to the second and, in the process, bumps oxygen molecules out of the way providing the driving force. The ‘engine’ is virtually silent, creates zero emissions in flight (the nitrogen ions regain their lost electron at the second electrode) and can be used to direct the plane, in principle, in any direction. The smart folk at MIT who built this flew a test plane indoors for only a couple of hundred metres and, right now, it is highly inefficient compared with the alternatives, but this has got to be the coolest air transport technology ever. It’s a frigging ion drive! Though these are early days and it will be some time before it is safe and efficient enough to be of general use, I love this idea. Lots of other uses, too, like hover-cars, boats that glide over water without touching it (or making noise), super-silent fans, hover-boards, and so on. Throw in some super-efficient solar power and we (or, for us oldies, our descendants) could be sailing on light before too long. I know next to nothing about the physics so maybe these are impossible or, in the case of fans, probably already exist (it’s an obvious technology), but the adjacent possible suddenly got much bigger.

Originally posted at: